Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Simon's play, which opened on Broadway in 1992, centers on Jake, a detached writer with neurotic tendencies and personality flaws, who has conversations in his mind with the many women in his life, both real and imaginary, that play out in front of him while he and his second wife Maggie deal with marital woes. Over the swiftly paced play, Jake enlists the help of his late wife Julie, his sister Karen, his therapist Edith, and his daughter Julie (at both age 12 and 21) to help him work through his past issues and his present struggles to write and to reconcile with Maggie. Through these encounters, Jake replays some of his favorite moments from the past while also envisioning situations between characters that could never actually happen as a way to make amends for his past.
While it may not be as laugh out loud funny as Simon's earlier works, such as The Odd Couple, or as personable and moving as Lost in Yonkers, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, it's still a fairly well-written piece with some funny Simon one-liners, intriguing characters, and comical and dramatic situations. Also, while the characters and their experiences aren't entirely autobiographical, there are similarities to the people in Simon's life. He has clearly modeled Jake on himself, Julie on his real first wife Joan Baim, who died of bone cancer, and Maggie on his second wife Marsha Mason. The play also stands as a sequel of sorts to Chapter Two, his 1977 play that centered on a young widower in mourning who moves on with his life when he starts dating a new woman, even though the characters aren't exactly the same. Because of those similarities to people and events in Simon's life, you have to also wonder if Simon struggled with many of the same interpersonal issues and bittersweet memories of the past that we see Jake face in this play, and if writing this play was, just like Jake's experiences, a way to turn off the voices in his head so he can finally face reality and get on with his life.
Director Janis Webb assembled a gifted cast who each delivered beautiful, comical and moving performances. As Jake, Walt Pedano did a very good job in portraying this man who is more at home with the memories in his head and the imagined conversations he has with those closest to him than with actual conversations with living people. He delivered Simon's well-crafted one-liners, such as "time flies when you're neurotic," with ease and, through warm line delivery and bright facial expressions, let us see how happy Jake is by reliving some of his fondest memories. But we also understand from Pedano's layered performance how Jake's past selfish actions and his struggle to truly grasp reality shortchanged his relationships.
Virginia Olivieri had the hardest job in the play as she had to depict three different versions of Maggie. She played the hopeful and happy woman Jake first meets, the current wife who is hurt, vulnerable and bitter, as well as a fantasy version of Maggie that Jake dreams up. Olivieri succeeded admirably in making each portrayal distinct and believable. She brought a pained realism to the modern-day Maggie but also delivered the comic moments in the fantasy part; the scene in which her imaginary Maggie verbally spars with Jake while Corin Grimm, as Sheila, whom Jake is currently dating, gets caught in the middle, was expertly staged by Webb and perfectly delivered by Olivieri, Pedano and Grimm. Also, from Simon's natural dialogue we could see that both Maggie and Jake aren't perfect; Olivieri and Pedano worked beautifully together to create a fractured couple we could root to see overcome their differences.
Martha Welty and Donna Kaufman provided much of the humor in the show, as Jake's fiery and feisty sister Karen and his caring therapist Edith. The two delivered their dialogue with crackerjack comic timing that got big laughs. Rachel Weiss was elegant as Jake's naive and energetic first wife Julie. Her scene with Cheyanne Ballou as her grown up daughter Molly was poignant and infused with tenderness, and quite moving, due to the actors' accomplished performances. Angie Rosacci was good as the younger Molly.
Webb's sharp direction helped bridge the gap between the moments of comedy and drama so they appeared seamless and natural. She made good use of the small Actor's Café space in staging the action, with the real characters almost always entering through doors and the imaginary ones entering through an archway, which helped separate the real world from the fantasy world in Jake's mind. Webb and Leroy Timblin's set design, with contributions from scenic artist Dillon Girgenti, was one of the best I've seen in this space and beautifully depicted an elegant and upscale New York City apartment. Mickey Courtney's costumes were excellent, with character-specific dresses for the women and warm designs for Jake.
While Jake's Women may not be as funny or moving as some of Simon's best plays, it is one of his most personable ones and is an interesting play about a man in crisis who uses his close relationships with women in his life, both real and imaginary, to attempt to overcome his problems. With a cast that created a realistic chemistry with each other, Desert Stages Theatre presented a touching production of this rich, honest, funny and intelligent play. Hopefully, they'll be able to continue performances in a few weeks.
Jake's Women was originally set to run through April 26, 2020, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. Performances have been suspended, due to the coronavirus, at least until March 31. For more information, visit http://desertstages.org or by phone at 480 483-1664.
Director/Props: Janis Webb